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UNC scientists, partners to develop new modeling system to pair emissions and health impacts at local scale for city, state of New York

February 2, 2020 busy nyc street

A team of scientists has partnered to create a new modeling system to assist the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in estimating the public health benefits of adopting clean and renewable energy and reducing energy demand in both New York City and counties throughout the state. This new system will help users rapidly analyze emissions data down to the zip-code level and evaluate numerous scenarios for public health outcomes based on alternative energy variables.

“When we talk about climate change in the broader community discussion, there is some angst among scientists about how, the U.S. for example, is not doing enough about climate change. But on the other hand, you have more local and state governments picking up the tab, I would say,” says Sarav Arunachalam, deputy director and research professor at the UNC Institute for the Environment (IE), who is leading the project.

The New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability has committed to cutting the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 in their “80 x 50 Plan,” which is part of the city’s “OneNYC Sustainability Plan.” This new tool will assist the city in achieving this goal through the development of a web-based interface for evaluating multiple emissions scenarios at a fairly high spatial resolution.

“This system can be a tool for the NYC leadership to see what they can accomplish by manipulating multiple emissions scenarios that will help them achieve their climate goals, and other cities can emulate them as well down the road,” Arunachalam says.

The new modeling system builds off of previous efforts to model climate and air quality scenarios at local scales and will aggregate two modeling tools independently created for the U.S. EPA. One tool developed by Arunachalam and colleagues at the UNC Institute for the Environment called C-TOOLS, models dispersions of emissions sources and calculates pollutant concentrations at neighborhood scales. The other, CO-Benefits Risk Assessment or COBRA developed by the project partners at Abt Associates, estimates and monetizes the health effects of air pollution.

“This tool will offer New York City and State an easy-to-use method for estimating the air quality and health benefits of air pollution emission reductions at a high geographic resolution,” says David Cooley, a senior analyst at Abt Associates.

Both of these tools will leverage new high-resolution input data – both for emissions from various activities in NYC, as well as concentration-response functions that relate ambient concentrations to incremental health risk – that have been recently developed by project collaborators and end-users of the new tool at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOHMH). Once integrated, the team will add these custom higher resolution input data sets for emissions and health incidences, enabling users to rapidly assess policy options on-demand within minutes, rather than the current turn-around time of weeks typically taken by more complex modeling systems.

“We are looking forward to having a web-based screening level tool to estimate neighborhood-level public health impacts from emission changes,” says Sarah Johnson, executive director of the Air Quality Program in the Bureau of Environmental Surveillance and Policy for the NYCDOHMH. “This tool will increase the application of public health data in decision-making around sustainability and air quality policy in NYC.”

As the largest and most densely populated city in the U.S., some of New York’s largest emissions sources come from heating and cooling the large concentration of buildings, congested transportation traffic and other industrial sources. Arunachalam and the team will be able to model air quality for each zip code in the city and create multiple scenarios for the emissions sources specific to that zip code, and assess health benefits due to changes in emissions at the zip code level.

“The city’s mayor of sustainability has come up with numerous strategies for emissions reductions,” Arunachalam says. “By working both with the NYC Department of Health and the city Mayor’s Office to get the list of emissions scenarios and in designing and testing the tools, we are excited to develop something that will be of practical use to a very large city, and look forward to testing the efficacy of multiple emissions scenarios in collaboration with them.”

Arunachalam estimates that the tool will take one year to develop. After the tool is developed, it will go to the end-users at the city for testing followed by technology transfer to both the city and NYSERDA, and then will be available for live operations to the broader community shortly after.